Tennessee persists with its outdated marijuana laws; press for change in 2019


Last update: November 12, 2018


On November 6, 2018, voters in two more states — Missouri and Utah — approved compassionate medical cannabis laws, bringing the total number of states with effective medical cannabis laws to 32. Sadly, Tennessee is one of the remaining 18 states that criminalizes patients who use a far safer treatment options than opiates.

Let your state lawmakers know you want them to listen to the 81% of voters who support allowing patients and doctors to decide whether to use medical cannabis.

Last year, a House subcommittee voted 3-3 on advancing Sen. Steven Dickerson and Rep. Jeremy Faison’s Medical Cannabis Act. The House Speaker then cast the tie-breaking vote that moved the bill to the full House Criminal Justice Committee, which advanced the legislation by a 9-2 vote. Several weakening amendments were added in order to garner support. Ultimately, Sen. Dickerson chose to withdraw the bill, fearing that passage of an extremely narrow bill would indefinitely delay passage of comprehensive medical legislation.

In 2019, Republican lawmakers Rep. Bryan Terry and Sen. Steve Dickerson plan to lead the charge. Unfortunately, incoming Governor Bill Lee opposes both medical marijuana and decriminalization. But, hope is not lost. Multiple governors have allowed medical marijuana laws to become law despite their opposition. You can send Lee a message on Twitter or send him an email letting him know patients deserve compassion, not criminalization.

Current marijuana laws in Tennessee

Marijuana, for both medical and recreational uses, is not legal in Tennessee. However, there is an exception that allows the use of high-CBD, low-THC cannabis oil for seizure patients.

Possession and cultivation both remain illegal. Possession of any amount is a misdemeanor, punishable by one year in jail and up to a $2,500 fine. Cultivation of 10 plants or less is a felony, punishable by one to six years in prison and a $5,000 fine, and the penalties increase significantly for each additional plant being grown.

Until 2016, third and subsequent convictions for the possession of marijuana were felonies, punishable by one to six years in prison and a fine of up to $3,000. But in 2016, the legislature reduced that penalty to a misdemeanor, so people convicted of non-violent possession of most drugs will no longer suffer the stigma of a lifelong felony record.

The state is blocking decriminalization. Meanwhile, the two largest cities in Tennessee – Memphis and Nashville – both passed ordinances in 2016 that gave an officer the discretion to charge someone with a civil infraction for possessing small amounts of marijuana. One of the reasons for this was that the criminal law has been enforced unequally: In 2010 in Tennessee, there were four African Americans arrested for marijuana possession for every white arrested, despite the fact that both races consume marijuana at about the same rate.

However, the legislature passed and then-Governor Bill Haslam signed a bill that repealed those local marijuana decriminalization laws. The bill said, “state government law preempts local government enactments with respect to the regulation of and appropriate sanctions for conduct involving drugs and other similar substances.” Now, with dozens of new lawmakers and a new governor, it’s time to renew the call for statewide reform. Please ask your legislators to support replacing criminal penalties with civil fines for simple possession.

Timeline of marijuana policy reform in Tennessee


1981: In 1981, HB 314 created a therapeutic research program — which was operational — for cancer chemotherapy or radiology or glaucoma (marijuana or THC). The program was administered by a Patient Qualification Review Board within the Board of Pharmacy, which was authorized to contract with the federal government for marijuana. The program was repealed by SB 1818 in 1992.

2015: Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam signed SB 280 into law, against his earlier opposition. The bill legalized the possession and use of marijuana to treat a limited number of severe conditions, including epilepsy. The bill has no provisions for legal sale, thus requiring patients to acquire the drug outside the state of Tennessee; possession of CBD oil without proof that it was obtained legally outside of Tennessee is a misdemeanor.

2016: Tennessee tweaked its ineffective low-THC law by enacting HB 2144 on May 20, 2016. The law provides that patients may possess CBD oils with no more than 0.9% THC if they have “a legal order or recommendation” for the oil and they or an immediate family member have been diagnosed with epilepsy by a Tennessee doctor.

2017: The legislature enacted HB 1164, modifying Tennessee’s industrial hemp law to allow the production of hemp with 0.3% THC or less. The law requires hemp growers to be licensed by the Department of Agriculture. It also provides that hemp is not marijuana under the state’s controlled substances act if it is either (a) viable and possessed by a licensed hemp grower, or (b) nonviable and is procured in accordance with department rules.

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